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Nelson Mandela – A Freedom Fighter, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Revolutionary Leader
Nelson Mandela – A Freedom Fighter, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Revolutionary Leader

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 08-10-2019

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, to Chief Henry Mandela of the Madiba clan of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people and his mother’s name was Nonqaphi Nosekeni, in the tiny village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River in Transkei, South Africa. Nelson’s father was also a counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He was named Rolihlahla Mandela and “Rolihlahla” in the Xhosa language literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but is more commonly translated to mean a “troublemaker.”

The Early Life of Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s father, who was a chief in waiting, served as a counselor to tribal chiefs for years, but eventually lost both his title and fortune over a disagreement with the local colonial magistrate. During this period, Mandela was only an infant and due to his father’s loss of status, together with his mother, they were forced to move the family to Qunu, an even smaller village north of Mvezo. The small village was nestled in a narrow grassy valley; that had no roads but just footpaths that linked the pastures where livestock grazed.

One of his father’s friends suggested that Mandela gets baptized in the Methodist Church. He later went on to become the first to attend school in his family. Just as the custom was at that time, Mandela’s teacher told him that his new first name would be Nelson; this might also due to the bias of the British educational system in South Africa. At the age of nine years old, his father died of lung disease which brought a drastic change to his life. Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people adopted him; a gesture done as a reward to Mandela’s father, who had recommended Jongintaba be made chief years earlier.

Mandela had to leave the local life he was exposed to, in Qunu, with a fear in his heart, that he would never see his village again. He journeyed by motorcar to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland, which was the chief’s royal residence. He quickly adapted to the new and more exposed surroundings of Mqhekezweni, even if he still had not forgotten his beloved village of Qunu. He enjoyed the same status and privileges as the regent’s two other children, Justice and Nomafu. He also took classes, studying English, Xhosa, history and geography in a one-room school next to the palace. At this period, Mandela developed an interest in African heritage, from elder chiefs who came to the Great Palace on official purposes. He learnt about the relative peace the African people had lived in, before the coming of the white people. The elders made him understand that the people of South Africa had previously lived as brothers, but this bond was shattered by the white men.

Mandela’s Initiation into ‘Manhood’

When Mandela clocked 16, he partook in the traditional African circumcision ritual to celebrate his entrance into manhood. This ceremony was not just a surgical procedure, but an elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. It is believed in the African tradition, that an uncircumcised man cannot inherit his father’s wealth, marry or officiate at tribal rituals. He partook in this ceremony with 25 other boys. He had a mood swing during the proceedings of the ceremony, when Chief Meligqili, the keynote speaker at the ceremony, spoke sadly of the young men, detailing how they were enslaved in their own country. The chief also said they would never have the power to govern themselves because their land was controlled by white men.

During this year also, Mandela was enrolled at Clarkebury, a school run by C.C Harris where he was first introduced to a more western style of education. Mandela was later enrolled at Healdtown, the Wesleyan College of Fort Beaufort which was a Mission School of the Methodist Church at the age of 19. His new school was the largest school for Africans with more than a thousand students. At the school, they were taught Eurocentric curriculum focused on British history but, his history teacher, Weaver Newana, added his own oral history during his classes, about the wars between the British and amaXhosa. His nephew, Justice Dalindyebo, was already enrolled at the school and was four years his senior. Mandela, who was the first member of his family to attend high school developed a love for boxing and long-distance running. He also developed keen interest in African culture (under the tutelage of his teacher, Mr Newana). In 1938, he graduated from Healdtown Methodist Boarding School and formed part of a very small number of black pupils who had gone through high school education in South Africa.

Mandela’s relative, Paramount Chief Dalindyebo patronage resulted in Mandela joining the Regent’s son, Justice, at the University of Fort Hare, near Alice in the Eastern Cape, which was the only university for Blacks (African, Coloured and Indian) in South Africa at the time. Mandela made friends with African, Indian and Coloured students at Fort Hare, many of whom eventually play leading roles in the liberation struggle in South African and in the anti-colonial struggle in some African countries. While at Fort Hare, Mandela did not complete his degree as he was involved in a dispute related to the elections of the Student Representative Council (SRC) in 1940. He refused to take his seat on the council arguing that the majority of the students had not voted in the election due to election boycott over the university food and desire among the students to give more power to the SRC. On his rejection of the university’s ultimatum to take his elected seat or face expulsion, he was given until the end of the student holidays to think the matter through, but he was not willing to stake his integrity. He later disclosed to his guardian that he would not be returning to Fort Hare.

The Regent made arrangements for his son, Justice and Mandela to marry two young women chosen by him but both young men decided to defy the Regent; they stole two of his cattle and sold them to raise funds to leave for Johannesburg secretly. However, within days of arriving at Johannesburg, both Justice and Mandela were dismissed when the induna (tribal councilor) learnt they had defied Dalindyebo and had left Mqhekezweni. Mandela eventually found temporary accommodation in Alexandra townships and communicated to the Regent his regret about defying and disrespecting him. He was able to convince Chief Dalindyebo that he wanted to further his study in Johannesburg and he received the Regent’s consent to remain in Johannesburg as well as his financial backing.

Mandela’s Journey into Politics

Just a few months into his stay in Johannesburg, Mandela was introduced to a young estate agent named Walter Sisulu, who took him under his wing immediately. In 1940, Sisulu had joined the ANC and he became a great influence over Mandela as a lifelong friend, political mentor and closest political confident. Mandela later moved in with Sisulu and his mother in their home in Orlando, Soweto. Later on, Sisulu found Mandela a White firm of attorneys who offered him a job and register him as an articled clerk, which was an astonishing rare offer in segregated South Africa. Mandela enrolled for a BA degree in law at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) after completing his BA from Fort Hare University via correspondence while working at the firm. Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black-liberation group in 1944, and became the leader of its Youth League. He also held other ANC leadership positions, through which he helped rebranded the organization and oppose the apartheid policies of the ruling National Party. That same year, he married Walter Sisulu’s cousin, Evelyn Mase, who was a nurse in 1944. They had two sons, Madiba Thembekile “Thembi” and Makgatho, and two daughters both called Makaziwe, the first of whom died in infancy. He divorced his wife in 1958.

Mandela rose through the ranks of the ANCYL and through its contributions, the ANC adopted in 1949, a more radical mass-based policy, the Programme of Action. He was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy in 1952. This campaign of civil disobedience was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress against six unjust laws. Together with 19 others, they was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months of hard labour, suspended for two years. In August 1952, he and Oliver Tambo founded South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo as he had a two-year diploma in law on top of his BA which allowed Mandela to practise law.

Mandela was banned for the first time at the end of 1952. And because of the restriction placed on him, he was only permitted to watch in secret as the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown on 26 June 1955. On 5 December 1956, Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop, which led to the 1956 Treason Trial. Several people from different races found themselves in the dock in the marathon trial that only ended when the last 28 accused, including Mandela, were acquitted on 29 March 1961. Also, on 21 March 1960, police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws. This killings ed to the country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on 8 April, 1961. Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among several others detained during the state of emergency.

It was during the trial that Mandela married a social worker, Winnie Madikizela, on 14 June 1958. They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa and the couple divorced in 1996. Just days before the end of the Treason Trial, Mandela was in Pietermaritzburg to speak at the All-in Africa Conference, which made a resolution that he should write to Prime Minister Verwoerd requesting a national convention on a non-racial constitution, and to warn that if he fails to agree, there would be a national strike against South Africa becoming a republic. Immediately after Mandela was acquitted, together with his colleagues in the Treason Trial, Mandela went underground and started planning a national strike for 29, 30 and 31 March. As a result of massive mobilisation of state security, the strike was called off early. He was later asked to lead the armed struggle in June 1961 and he also helped to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which was launched on 16 December 1961 with a series of explosions.

Using the adopted name, David Motsamayi, Mandela secretly left South Africa on 11 January 1962. He went around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. After receiving military training in Morocco and Ethiopia, he returned to South Africa in July 1962. He was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick on 5 August while returning from KwaZulu-Natal, where he had briefed ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about his trip. He was charged with leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to go on strike. He was later convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, which he began serving at the Pretoria Local Prison. He was transferred to Robben Island On 27 May 1963 and returned to Pretoria on 12 June. Several of his comrades were arrested within a month when police raided Liliesleaf, a secret hideout in Rivonia, Johannesburg, used by ANC and Communist Party activists. Mandela joined 10 others on trial for sabotage in what became known as the ‘Rivonia Trial’ on 9 October 1963. On facing the death penalty on 20 April 1964, his words to the court at the end of his famous “Speech from the Dock” became immortalised:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” 

Mandela and seven other accused, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, were convicted on 11 June 1964 and the next day were sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white, while the others went to Robben Island. Mandela’s mother later died in 1968 and his eldest son, Thembi, in 1969 but he was not allowed to attend their funerals. Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni on 31 March 1982. Kathrada later joined them in October. On his return to the prison in November 1985 after prostate surgery, Mandela was held alone. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited him in hospital and Mandela later initiated talks about an ultimate meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC.

He was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis on 12 August 1988. After spending more than three months in two hospitals, he was transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl on 7 December 1988, where he spent his last 14 months of imprisonment. On Sunday 11 February 1990, he was released from its gates, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC and almost four months after the release of his remaining Rivonia comrades. Mandela had no grudges over his incarceration and he pointed this out when he stated that – “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” While imprisoned, he rejected at least three conditional offers of release. Mandela comitted himself in official talks to end white minority rule and was elected ANC President to replace his ailing friend, Oliver Tambo in 1991. He and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize In 1993 and he was voted for the first time in his life on 27 April 1994. He was later inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President on 10 May 1994. And on his 80th birthday in 1998, he married Graça Machel, his third wife. In commitment to his promise, Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term as President. He however continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund which he set up in 1995 and also established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. His grandson, Mandla Mandela, was installed as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council at a ceremony at the Mvezo Great Place in April 2007.

Nelson Mandela is an emblem of democracy and equality. He was forgiving and accommodating and his life remains an inspiration to everyone who desires freedom. Mandela died on 5 December 2013 at his home in Johannesburg.

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